The 1930s matinee idol Chinese audiences knew and adored as Jin Yan 金焰 was a Korean, born Kim Duk-lin 金德麟 (pronounced Jin Delin in Mandarin) in Seoul in 1910, one of several children of a doctor. At that time, Korea was under Japanese rule. Working under the underground code name "Golden Flame," for which the Chinese characters are 金焰, Dr. Kim was one of the founders and leaders of the Korean national independence movement. When the authorities ordered Dr.Kim's arrest in 1912 for his activities, the family made its way north to the Yalu River in winter, then fled into exile in China, eventually settling in Tianjin. The family thrived in China until the father's death in 1918. His impoverished widow, unable to support her children on her own, found homes for them with various relatives living in East China. Little Duk-lin was taken in by an aunt who lived in Shanghai, and later Tianjin. He grew up healthy and strong, and was a star athlete in school. In 1927, after graduating from middle school and just 15 years after fleeing Korea, he boarded a steamboat back to Shanghai and found work as an apprentice technician at Xinmin, one of the smaller studios. But before long his good looks, personality and willingness to work hard moved him out from behind the camera.
His first film appearance was an uncredited role as a young soldier in Hou Yao's 1928 version of "Mulan Joins the Army," but he was not offered a contract after the film's completion. So with an introduction from another director, Wan Laitian, he joined playwright Tian Han's Southern Film and Dramatic Society, and seriously began learning to act. Under Tian Han's tutelage, he excelled in successful stage productions of "Salome" and "Carmen." Recalling this time years later, Jin Yan said "Tian Han was my first teacher."
After the Southern Society went to Guangzhou in 1929, Jin Yan remained in Shanghai and gave movies another try. Director Sun Yu gave him the title role in the movie "Knight Errant." This was the real beginning of his film career, and for his career Kim Duk-lin officially changed his name to his father's revolutionary code name—Jin Yan.
When the Lianhua Film Company was formed in 1930, it attracted considerable talent from other studios, especially younger performers who felt ready to move up from supporting roles to leads. The most notable names among the new studio's recruits were two that would become box office magic over the next few years: Jin Yan and Ruan Lingyu. [right, Ruan Lingyu and Jin Yan in "Wild Flowers" ]
Their first onscreen pairing was in the Sun Yu-directed "Wild Flowers Among the Weeds" (aka "Wild Flowers by the Roadside"). It related the story of two young lovers, the scion of a wealthy family and a flower seller, struggling against family and societal opposition to their relationship. According to its writer-director Sun Yu, he was heavily influenced by two other movies, 1924's "Tea Picking Girl" and 1927's American production "Seventh Heaven." "Wild Flowers" was a popular success, especially with young urban Chinese, and the two young co-stars were soon matinee idols.
In the period 1931-32, Jin Yan played the lead in 10 motion pictures, portraying a wide range of characters, from rich young playboys and college students to farm hands and sailors. His athletic build and good looks combined with an unaffected and natural manner on screen made him a natural to portray virile young men. He had a huge following, especially among young people, with a fan magazine poll dubbing him the "Emperor of Cinema". A young immigrant with only 7 yuan in his pocket had made it to the top of China's motion picture world.
[left, Jin Yan at the height of his popularity]
In one of his starring movies, 1931's "Two Galaxy Stars," Jin Yan met Wang Renmei 王人美, a young actress making her screen debut in a supporting role. She was already a prominent star of China's musical stage and over the next few years both their careers flourished as their personal relationship developed. On New Year's Day 1934 at a studio-hosted party, the couple announced their engagement. [right, Wang Renmei]
When full-scale war erupted with Japan, Jin and Wang were stranded in the "Orphan Island" of Shanghai. With his adopted country in such a crisis, he decided to stop performing, which resulted in the Japanese occupation authorities putting him on a "blacklist" of those under suspicion. They employed various tactics ranging from subtle to outright intimidation in the attempt to get him to collaborate and join a front film studio they were setting up. However, the actor stayed firm, and refused. To make a living, he moved to a more remote part of the city, where he and Wang Renmei lived in seclusion and he changed his vocation to building design. But his reputation as the "Emperor" would not let him live in peace: the Japanese kept after him, repeatedly sending Japanese agents or Chinese collaborators to persuade him to join their plan to make movies on the theme of "Sino-Japanese cooperation." He remained steadfast in his refusal.
The Japanese stepped up their pressure, now threatening the couple with physical force. By the autumn of 1938, the now-dangerous situation called for escape. His friend. director Wu Yonggang, suggested a "bait and switch" tactic for this, with a minor film actress named Hu Jia and her husband Chen Weiguang providing the opportunity. Chen Weiguang worked for a foreign insurance company, free to make regular business trips to Hong Kong, so when he announced he planned to take his wife along on his next trip, no one thought anything of it. But when it came time to board the Dutch postal packet that would take them there, it was actually Jin Yan and Wang Renmei who boarded, embarked and fled Shanghai.
In 1940, after experiencing many hardships and dangers, the now-destitute couple finally arrived in China's wartime capital of Chongqing (Chungking), where they both appeared in "The Vast Sky," a patriotic film about Chinese aviators that featured an all-star cast drawn from the large number of Shanghai film community refugees who had made it safely to Chongqing. The couple had now been married for over half a decade, and cracks had begun to show in the relationship. Both were very strong-willed people: Wang Renmei was outspoken and aggressive, a woman who relished social life and the interaction with new people it provided; Jin Yan's emphasis was on his close friendships with old friends, mostly other men who were former colleagues in the film community, and these different approaches to dealing with others led to differences of opinion between the two from time to time. Complicating this were the added pressures on their marriage from poverty and the constant upheaval in their life: they began quarreling over trivial daily matters, and a gradual change in their feelings for each other finally led to a breakup. Jin Yan was also nagged by personal guilt that he was not doing enough for the national defense effort. Inspired by his appearance in "The Vast Sky," he applied for pilot training in the Chinese Air Force, but was rejected as too old. By this time Jin and Wang were living in Kunming, where she had found work as an English language typist at the U.S. air base there. For Jin Yan, whose views of male-female marital roles were very traditional, his wife being the source of support was too much to take. He contacted a theatrical company touring southwest China staging patriotic plays, and when they invited him to join them, he demanded she go with him. When Wang Renmei refused to quit her job and follow, a divorce was suggested and agreed upon (sources vary on which of them first broached the subject), and the couple who had been the Chinese movie community's dream marriage parted in 1944.
At war's end, Jin Yan hurried back to the Shanghai movie community he had been away from so long, and by 1947 he had fallen in love and remarried, again to another famous star, Qin Yi 秦怡. The two had first met in Chongqing in 1940 during the filming of "The Vast Sky." Qin Yi later recalled having been totally in awe of the "Emperor," and when he turned up on her Shanghai doorstep several years later, she found his interest in her overwhelming. But while they grew closer together, she was puzzled by his reluctance to make known his intentions for the relationship, until one day he suddenly turned very serious and disclosed to her the reason he hadn't proposed: he had been approached by Hollywood interests to possibly make a movie there, and he had been agonizing over his decision. "If I accept their offer, then we would have to part. But if I stay, we could get married." To Qin Yi, this was proof that Jin Yan was a man who would put love ahead of career, and that parting even for a short while was unacceptable. Since this meshed perfectly with her own feelings, she accepted his proposal. In the winter of 1947, Qin Yi was invited to make a film in Hong Kong, and Jin Yan accompanied her. While they were there, the Yonghua Film Studio in Hong Kong wanted to sign them both to long-term contracts, but Qin Yi was very close to her family back in Shanghai, and wanted to return there immediately after completing the picture. Jin Yan had by now abandoned the idea of Hollywood, and in a turnabout in attitude from his first marriage, decided to follow her back to Shanghai. On the eve of their departure from Hong Kong, 37-year-old Jin Yan and 25 year-old Qin Yi were married in an exhuberant but simple ceremony. In the second year of their marriage they had a son who they named Jin Jie.
During the immediate postwar era Qin Yi's film career flourished, while Jin Yan's never approached the heights he had enjoyed in the 1930s. He appeared occasionally on stage, and acted in a few films, including two with his new wife, but mostly occupied himself with hobbies: his favorite pastimes were tennis, flower-growing, hunting and raising dogs. But he found this lifestyle of the idle rich an increasingly unfulfilling one, and he was often subject to bouts of depression, sometimes seeking solace in alcohol. However, with the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, his career seemed to be resurrected when he was cast in either the lead or a major supporting role in "Rebirth of Our Land", "A Great Beginning", "Mother" and "Eagles Brave the Storm". His portrayal of a martyred Communist organizer in "Mother" was probably the greatest performance of his later career, and the one that most Chinese remember today.
But making "Eagles Brave the Storm" in 1957, started Jin Yan's health on what would be a steady decline. Jin portrayed a Tibetan hunter helping Red Army soldiers during the Long March, and the location filming conditions were very harsh: in addition to the altitude, spring came late to Tibet that year, and cast and crew all suffered from the freezing cold. When they returned from location filming that summer, the heat was magnified by intense studio lights and the necessity of wearing heavy winter clothes on the set, since the indoor scenes were supposed to be taking place in winter. Jin Yan was drinking more, and suffered an attack of stomach bleeding.
He had two relatively small roles in minor pictures in 1958, but the following year received an offer that delighted him. The motion picture division of the East German government was planning a science fiction film which would have a multinational cast, concerning an international space exploration to Venus. Since the project was to use English as its common language among the filmmakers, the East Germans asked the Chinese Ministry of Culture's film bureau to name an English-speaking Chinese actor for the cast, and the bureau designated Jin Yan. Jin left for Berlin filled with excitement and enthusiasm. But there were repeated script revisions, and nearly two months later he was still in Berlin, with no film in the can and no date set for filming to start. So he decided to return to China and wait for news. However, on his second day back in Beijing he was hospitalized with a recurrence of stomach bleeding, and another actor was named for the role.
From this point on, his health steadily declined. In 1962, Jin Yan underwent an operation to remove 1/3 of his stomach and implant him with a catheter. Following the operation, he suffered a paralytic stroke that rendered him bedridden for most of the next 20 years. Qin Yi shouldered the twin burdens of supporting the family and being her husband's devoted nurse. But things grew worse with the coming of the Cultural Revolution: Qin Yi was one of the many who were persecuted, and she was sentenced to a prison term of up to two years. By this time, Jin Yan had developed pulmonary emphysema in addition to his other ills, so her sentence was converted from jail time to a work release program. Every day she would labor in a factory staffed by convicts, then hurry home to tend to Jin Yan before returning to the prison that night. After her release, Qin Yi devoted full time to caring for her now totally invalid husband, and resumed her role as breadwinner when motion picture production resumed in 1975.
On December 27, 1983, Jin Yan lost his battle with his health problems, aged 73.
Liu, Shu 刘澍. "Jin Yan: 'Dianying huangdi' de yi yu qing" 金焰：‘电影皇帝’的艺与情 (Jin Yan: the art and passion of the 'Emperor of Film'). Dazhong Dianying ("Popular Cinema") 2004:22, pp.48-51.
Yue, Fa 跃发 and Chun Yu 春雨. Zhongguo yingxing zhuan 中国影星传 (Biographies of Chinese film stars). Beijing: Culture and Art Publishing House, 1989, pp.211-214.
Mulan Joins the Army ... soldier (uncredited)
Four Heroes of the Wang Family II ... Wang Zhangyun
Knight Errant ... Fei Long
Wild Flower Among the Weeds ... Huang Yun
A Spray of Plum Blossoms ... Hu Lunting
The Peach Girl ... Jin De'en
Love and Duty ... the lover
Two Galaxy Stars ... Yang Yiyun
Wild Rose ... Jiang Bo
Spring Dream in the Old Capital II ... Huang Guoxiong
Confront the National Crisis Together ... volunteer soldier
Three Modern Women ... Zhang Yu
Humanity ... Zhao Minjie
A Music Teacher ... Zhong Zhigang
Night in the City ... young man
Light of Mother ... Jiahu
Golden Age ... Zeng Zhangchun
The Big Road ... Jin Ge
The New Peach Blossom Fan ... Fang Yumin
Soaring Aspirations ... Shun'er
Waves Washing on the Sand ... Ah Long
Back to Nature ... Ma Long
Unexpected Tears of Blood ... Li Zuyi
Wu Song and Pan Jinlian ... Wu Song
The Outlaw Lin Chong ...
The Vast Sky ... Jin Wanli
An Ideal Son-in-law ... Situ Tan
Spring Melody ... Dongfang Xi
Lost Love ...
The World Bright Again ... Old Shen
A Great Beginning (1954) ... Department head Nie
Mother ... Mr. Deng
Eagles Brave the Storm ... Old Baer
The Red Flag at Sea ... Secretary Tang
Love the Factory as the Home ... Industrial Department head